Today on Eat, Drink, Travel, Y’all I am stoked to have one of my good friends and favorite booze Instagrammers, @Jake.On.The.Rocks share the oh-so-weird and yet oh-so-wonderful Pho Cocktail he found on his recent trip to Hanoi, Vietnam. Like me, Jake has a bit of a travel obsession, but his obsession is bar and cocktail specific…
When I travel to any new destination I always arrive with an extensive (some would even say “aggressive”) list of bars in hand that I want to visit. It’s not that I’m a ridiculous lush . . . I mean, I am but that’s beside the point . . . it’s just that my preferred way to get the feel of a new city is to experience it through its drinking establishments. In each tavern or dive or cocktail lounge, I love to see how and what the people who live there imbibe. Hanoi, Vietnam has no shortage of amazing spots to grab a drink. In the city’s Old Quarter you can take a seat on one of the tiny plastic stools that dot the sidewalk cafes and enjoy street food like honey-glazed grilled quails, deep fried eel or papaya salad while tossing back ice cold locally brewed beer. At the historic Sofitel Metropole Hotel the Bamboo Bar serves up classic cocktails poolside above an enormous bomb shelter constructed during the Vietnam War that was sealed up and forgotten until they were laying the bar’s foundation. Whiskey-obsessed cocktail bar Polite & Co. has four (four!) hours of happy hour every day during which you can get a pour of bourbon for under $2US. And then there’s the city’s famous “Pho Cocktail” . . .
We started hearing about the Pho Cocktail within a few hours of arriving. Originally the brainchild of Pham Tien Tiep, the cocktail was created by Tiep for the Diageo World Class competition in 2012. Tiep was awarded “Best Bartender in Vietnam” for his efforts so it isn’t surprising to learn that it’s a point of pride throughout the city. You can get the gin and Cointreau-based wonder at a handful of different bars (kind of like the last scene in that Simpson’s episode “Flaming Moe’s”), but we heard from a number of locals that the best place to get it is at Ne Bar, a swanky alleyway lounge that hosts a mix of locals, expats, and visitors. When you arrive, aim for the seat that’s closest to the action because you’re in for a show (in this particular bar, that means one of the seats near the corner well that’s furthest from the entrance).
When you order the Pho Cocktail the first thing that will happen is that the bartender will reach for what appears to be a tall, ornate candle holder. It’s a metal stand about 2 ½ feet tall, divided into three levels. Each level has a small, metal cup with holes in the bottom affixed to it and into these cups the bartender will pack anise, cinnamon and cardamom. Once the stand is prepped, the bartender stirs gin and Cointreau in a metal pitcher and applies a torch to the bottom of the pitcher to begin heating up the liquid. Once the liquid is slightly warm the torch is used to light the mixture on fire and now (obviously) we get to the exciting part.
Raising the flaming gin and Cointreau over the top of the metal stand, the liquid is poured into the top cup and you get to watch the flaming mixture fall through each holder, in each case creating a brilliant burst of blue flame as the drink mixes with the spice held inside the cup, until it finally falls through the last cup and into another pitcher. That pitcher gets brought back up to the top and poured through again. After about five passes through the boozy spice rack, the smell of roasted spice is thick in the air throughout the bar. The resulting mix is strained over ice into a glass, garnished with a cinnamon stick and herbs and served to you on a bamboo tray with red chili and lime (you know, like you’d expect when being served pho) along with a pair of chopsticks so that you can spice your drink to taste.
When I tried the Pho Cocktail for the first time my immediate thought was “this is delicious and weird I don’t know why I’m enjoying this”. Make no mistake, the flavor combination is distinctly like pho broth but in cocktail form it’s likely to please even those who don’t really enjoy pho (if those people actually exist). The drink is savory and rich, constantly shifting between sweet and sour. It’s a bit hard to pin down and yet weirdly addictive. It’s like by the time you finally feel like you’ve got the drink figured out, the glass is empty and you’re ready to order another.
On that score you wouldn’t be alone. When we were in Ne Bar so many people were ordering and re-ordering this drink that they basically had one bartender whose entire job was churning out Pho Cocktails. It’s a labor-intensive drink that, because it relies on the freshness of the spices, doesn’t lend itself to shortcuts like infused syrups or bottled mixers. That having been said, I can’t think of a more entertaining way to wait for another round than watching flaming booze being poured through a giant metal rack. Along with “trying to safely cross the street while dozens of motorbikes zoom past you”, it’s easily among the most thrilling ways to spend your time in Hanoi.